In September 2021, Industry Dive had nearly 20 designers spread across several time zones and three teams – Product Design, Brand & Marketing Design, and studioID Design (content marketing design). Everyone worked remotely.

Just 14 months earlier, the Dive design department had two core teams and 10 designers, most in the same time zone.

To keep everyone aligned during this period of rapid growth and change, we began to host bi-annual department town halls and month-in-review sessions. We also revised our role descriptions for many positions.

Although these updates helped, it was evident that we would benefit from even more structure. In particular, we needed a better way to recognize professional development in early-career staff before they moved into senior individual contributor positions or management. We also needed more cross-role and cross-team guidance related to communication and autonomy (self-management) expectations.

To address these issues, our three team directors and I created a universal Levels framework – a career ladder we could tailor to any current or future design group.

Defining success

Here was our checklist for a successful universal Levels framework:

  • Simple and highly practical
  • Works for current and future design teams
  • Aligned with our approach to hard skills training
  • Aligned with our approach to soft skills training
  • Aligned with our BICEPS approach to building a strong, healthy team

Determining scope and timing

We worked quickly to craft a usable version of a Levels framework before the end of the company’s annual budgeting process. I would highly recommend a similar timing; it helped us make more well-informed decisions regarding promotions and compensation updates. You probably already announce these types of changes to staff at the end of the year, so a late November or early December rollout will feel natural.

Our initial framework did not cover manager and director-level positions, nor a handful of new, unique roles like Front-end Designer. We decided to roll out levels for these other positions the following quarter.

Reviewing existing frameworks and creating the basic ladder

The beginning of the project involved an analysis of public Levels frameworks, Levels.fyi, and Progression.fyi.

Following a couple weeks of research and discussion, we arrived at a basic set of levels for most individual contributor positions on each team. This included levels for Visual Designer, Illustrator, Product Designer, and a few others.

In their simplest form, the levels looked like this:

  • Designer I
  • Designer II
  • Designer III
  • Senior Designer

Defining cross-role and cross-team expectations

Many of the existing Levels frameworks we found were extremely detailed. Instead of going this route, we kept our expectations as simple as possible. We optimized for practical use, rather than comprehensiveness. First and foremost, we wanted the framework to guide manager conversations with staff and support cross-role and cross-team alignment.

With this focus in mind, we narrowed our framework to four categories – Impact, Craft, Communication, and Independence – and wrote 4-6 expectations with brief descriptions.

Impact (external focus)
Detail-oriented Extraordinary level of care and thought given to design and experience details
Brand advocate Always aware of and aligns designs to brand strategy and visual identity of company or client
Business-focused Always aware of and designs for business vision and goals of user, company or client
Outcome-oriented Focuses on achieving most impactful outcomes for readers, clients and coworkers
Coach and mentor Helps teammates improve their craft and communication skills
Craft (internal focus)
Unique to each team
Communication (external focus)
Team-oriented Puts team over self. Celebrates and supports teammates
Open-minded Willing to listen, change mind and adapt to workplace changes
Diplomatic Tactfully handles critique, disagreements and difficult situations with coworkers and clients
Relationship-builder Fosters strong working relationships with coworkers within and outside department
Professional presenter and facilitator Professionally leads presentations and meetings around specific objectives to achieve desired outcomes
Independence (internal focus)
Accountable Follows through on commitments
Self-manages projects and schedule Effectively manages own time, priorities and resources to achieve goals
Proactive Communicates and collaborates early and often with team, manager and stakeholders
Growth-oriented Routinely raises bar on craft and communication skills

Defining competency expectations for each level

After drafting expectations, we mapped them to each level in grid format (see the rubric pictured below) with four levels of competency:

  1. Functional - Requires more time, experience, training and/or guidance to develop skill to level where they can perform well independently on most projects
  2. Independent - Can perform well independently most of the time, but may require assistance or additional training to execute at a high level of quality
  3. Experienced - Performs independently most all of the time and to a high standard
  4. Leader - Has mastered the skill to such an extent that they can handle very complex projects, serve as a role model for the skill and coach others

A screenshot of the product design team levels. Screenshot of the Product Design Levels rubric

To ensure managers and staff do not fixate on checking off every box, the rubric primarily serves as a communication tool. The rubric helps us identify areas where a staff member is excelling – areas where they should probably double down – and areas where they might need more experience or challenges. Managers use this information to deliver more personalized coaching and training.

After finalizing the rubric, we created a communications plan for the Levels rollout.

Creating a comms plan and rollout strategy

Our comms plan included briefing notes, tailored for each team, in a Google Doc. We shared these notes alongside each team’s rubric, which was in a Google Sheet.

Rolling out the framework

We presented the Levels framework to all three teams in early December. Instead of doing an all-hands meeting, we held team-specific ones. I joined to add broader, department-wide context about our Levels strategy and answer any questions.

We followed the team presentations with end-of-year 1-1s between each director and their staff. These were meetings we were already going to do anyway – a final conversation with each team member about the year – so it was the perfect forum for talking about Levels.

Overall, the framework was well-received. Designers welcomed the increased structure; it further clarified role expectations and increased transparency related to career advancement.

Moving forward, we will use our Levels framework to guide routine check-ins and as a core part of our bi-annual performance reviews.